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Liam Scarlett, who has died suddenly aged 35, was the Royal Ballet’s acclaimed young ballet choreographer, until he was dismissed last year following allegations of sexual misconduct with young dancers. His death came hours after Denmark’s leading theatre terminated its contracts with him last Friday over claims involving its own staff.
In the past six years Scarlett had become the shooting star of world ballet, trained in the Royal Ballet School and the Royal Ballet, and increasingly commissioned by the world’s leading companies.
One of these was the Royal Danish Ballet, and last Friday the Copenhagen theatre’s director Kasper Holten announced the cancellation of plans to stage Scarlett’s works “until further notice”, owing to staff complaints of his “offensive behaviour”.
The following day Scarlett was found dead, which the dance world is widely reporting as suicide.
The allegations in Denmark were unspecific, yet similar in tone to those that surrounded Scarlett’s unexpected dismissal from the Royal Ballet, his home company, in March last year, where he was its artist-in-residence, due to allegations dating over 10 years. Holten was Royal Opera director until 2017.
The Royal Ballet School confirmed that some abuse inquiries related to student dancers. But an extended inquiry by Lucinda Harvey Associates found “no matters to pursue” as regards ballet students. However, the Royal Opera House stated in March 2020 that it would no longer work with Scarlett on staging his works.
Other companies followed suit, including Queensland Ballet, where he had been appointed associate choreographer in 2015.
The former Bolshoi Ballet director Alexei Ratmansky posted on Facebook that Scarlett had become toxic for world companies, despite the lack of transparency around the affair. He wrote: “I did hear one director saying, ‘I can’t program his ballets, I’ll be eaten alive’. ”
The 2012 London Paralympics designer, Jon Bausor, who designed several of Scarlett’s ballets, posted that the choreographer had been subjected to a “medieval trial by cancel culture and media-shaming”, which indicated “toxicity within our industry” and a failure to look at issues of mental illness “in a kind and human way”.
Liam Scarlett’s death is the most shocking outcome in a series of scandals about working relationships affecting the ballet world in recent years, where company leaders and choreographers have been accused of inappropriate relations with dancers, which internal investigations have left both alleged victims and perpetrators unsatisfied.
Instances have included the former Royal Ballet director Ross Stretton, who quit Covent Garden after just a year in post in 2002, and New York City Ballet’s long-time ballet master Peter Martins, who retired in 2018 under pressure from numerous accusations of abusing power.
Both men denied any wrongdoing, but the implication of the Scarlett case is that ballet companies have yet to modernise the complex internal working dynamic of ballet with transparent justice for all involved.
Liam Scarlett was born on April 8 1986 in Ipswich to Deborah and Laurence Scarlett, and started dance classes aged four. He attended Castle Hill School and the Linda Shipton School of Dancing, Ipswich, and at 11 won a place at the Royal Ballet School.
From his early days Scarlett showed a facility for moving dancers gracefully, and was urged by the former Royal Ballet director Norman Morrice to develop it. He won all the choreographic prizes, including the Ursula Moreton and Kenneth MacMillan awards, and his two creations for the Royal Ballet School’s prestigious Covent Garden matinees, Monochromatic in 2004 and Allegro de Jeunesse in 2005, were critically acclaimed.
After the latter, the Daily Telegraph critic hailed Scarlett as “a bright choreographic talent – the best news of the year”.
On entering the Royal Ballet, the tall, elegant Scarlett proved a fine dancer, and was promoted to First Artist in 2008. He danced entertaining character parts such as Alain in La Fille mal gardée, and the Dancing Master in Cinderella, as well as testing technical numbers such as the Neapolitan pas de deux in Swan Lake and the Beggar Chief in Manon.
He was set on choreography, however, and quickly joined the busy choreographic elite of Christopher Wheeldon, David Bintley, and Wayne McGregor, who mentored him.
A series of pas de deux for leading Covent Garden stars such as Leanne Benjamin, Edward Watson, Ivan Putrov and Leanne Cope showed his perception of individual dancers’ qualities, and his breakthrough company work for the Royal Ballet, Asphodel Meadows in 2010, a plotless elegy for young soldiers starring Tamara Rojo, was acclaimed internationally for its haunting beauty. It brought Scarlett his first international commission, from Miami City Ballet, and in 2012 he turned full-time to choreography.
With bigger opportunities and bigger budgets, Scarlett’s darkly themed story-ballets at the Royal Ballet – Sweet Violets (based on the Jack the Ripper paintings of Walter Sickert), Hansel and Gretel, The Age of Anxiety and Frankenstein – struck a chord with audiences, offered lavish stage pictures, and gave meaty character roles to dancers.
His attraction to death as a subject found another poignant result in his 2013 reflection on the First World War for English National Ballet, No Man’s Land, which focused on the image of women in factories packing bomb casings with yellow explosive while bidding their soldier husbands farewell.
He created more contemporary-styled work for the Ballet Boyz in the award-winning Serpent, and Hinterland and Indigo Children for Ballet Black, and then rapidly won global commissions for his dark-hued classical-with-a-twist works.
These included Acheron for New York City Ballet, With a Chance of Rain at American Ballet Theatre, Viscera for Miami Ballet, Hummingbird for San Francisco Ballet, The Firebird for Norwegian National Ballet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, The Queen of Spades for the Royal Danish Ballet, and a raunchy Dangerous Liaisons for Queensland Ballet in 2019 – which opened with a bout of sex on top of a coffin.
The Australian company, which had named Scarlett associate choreographer in 2016, cancelled its 2020 tour of Dangerous Liaisons and cut ties with him after the Royal Ballet allegations were revealed to have a sexual component.
Despite the unresolved opacity of the allegations surrounding him, the damage to Scarlett’s legacy as a choreographer was remorseless. The severing of his Royal Ballet position last season annulled a hoped-for Covent Garden revival of his lyrical Symphonic Dances – created as a 2017 farewell for the ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky – and the Royal Danish Ballet’s cancelling last week of Frankenstein, scheduled to be staged next year, appeared to be the final blow.
Liam Scarlett’s remaining testament is his romantic 2018 Swan Lake staging at the Royal Ballet, which on the grounds of cost, audience popularity and generally positive reaction is likely to stay on view for several years.
Liam Scarlett, born April 8 1986, died April 16 2021